By John Lachmann
LEXINGTON, Ky. – The state tournament was avenge twofold for Notre Dame.
On Thursday, the Pandas took down Lexington Tates Creek, the team that beat them in the 2012 championship match in penalty kicks, in a state semifinal.
And on Saturday, Notre Dame settled a four-year-old score with Louisville Sacred Heart, blanking the Valkyries, 2-0 in the state title match at Jon R. Akers Stadium at Paul Dunbar High School.
Sacred Heart had also topped the Pandas in a shootout in the state championship in 2009.
“In regulation, you don’t understand how grateful we are,” Notre Dame coach Sara McSorley said. “That was the theme – our assistant coaches and I would walk back and forth – end this in regulation, end this in regulation. So we really wanted to make sure this was a definitive game and that we didn’t leave it to chance, because that type of loss is heartbreaking.”
This was the fourth appearance in the title match for the Pandas in the past five seasons. It was the third state championship for Notre Dame, with all of them coming under McSorley.
McSorley won it all her first season in 2004 and again in 2011.
“Two years ago we put so much pressure on ourselves that we couldn’t return home without a state title,” McSorley said. “(In 2011) it had been a while, and (that team) was so senior-heavy, and they had come close two years before. This team, we were young, and we were very hopeful that we could develop into the team we thought we were.”
The Pandas wasted no time getting on the scoreboard. Just 2:43 into the match, junior midfielder Carissa Dyer crossed the ball to senior midfielder Ellen Combs, who left-footed it past the keeper.
Notre Dame scoring a goal has been a death sentence for opponents. Including Saturday, the Pandas blanked their final 11 opponents, including all nine playoff foes.
Notre Dame, which allowed just nine goals all season, surrendered its final one of the season on Oct. 3 with 30 minutes left in a win over Newport Central Catholic.
“Defense has been obviously one of our strongest assets – we obviously are hard to put a goal in (against), statistics will show you – but we’re not too confident,” senior midfielder Maddie Tierney said. “We know someone could score on us. We’re not out there thinking, oh we’ve had shutouts, no one can score on us. But we’re playing the same consistent defense every game and no one has been able to beat it.”
Since, the Pandas logged 910 minutes of scoreless soccer, or over 15 hours.
“The fact that we went through this postseason without a score (allowed) is just to be as proud of as the state title,” McSorley said. “That you did it in that fashion, that makes a statement of how well our team played defensively, and composed.”
The previously-unbeaten Valkyries, who entered play averaging 5.1 goals per game, pushed back late in the first half. They forced Pandas junior goalkeeper Courtney Hansel to make two saves and field two other balls in the box in the final 13 minutes before halftime.
Hansel handled each opportunity cleanly.
“We just needed to calm down,” McSorley said. “The same thing happened on Thursday – we allowed them to get a couple of offensive threats started and we didn’t recover well, and we came out of our game…we just cooled ourselves down at halftime and made sure we refocused.”
Sacred Heart’s only shot of the second half went well high in the 44th minute, and Notre Dame took complete control of the remainder of the match, rarely allowing the ball to come within 30 yards of Hansel.
“First half, I think that we were a little flustered, but in the second half, we came out on defense, we moved our feet and we made sure that when the got the ball, someone was on them,” Tierney said. “We took away their opportunities and the people they could pass to, and I think that threw them off because normally that’s the game they play – pass around their team, find a slot, go to goal.”
And with 24:41 left, junior Mandy Arnzen extended the lead when a low shot slid past the keeper and just inside the far post off a feed from Tierney.
“Tierney is so good, literally everything we do plays through her and she’s always there to save us,” Arnzen said. “I look up to her – I feel like she trains us and she teaches us what we need to do better.”
Tierney and Combs were named to the all-tournament team, and sophomore defender Libby Greenwell was named most valuable player. Greenwell did not have a goal or an assist all season, but she was an integral reason no Pandas opponent did in this tournament either.
“Libby came up very big both games in squelching a lot of their attacks,” McSorley said. “We could’ve put the entire defense – including Courtney Hansel – all of them deserve to be recognized because it doesn’t just take one, but I think Libby was the one that was kind of the captain and one of the anchors back there and she came up big time and time again in big situations.”
HALFTIME: 1-0. GOALS: ND—Combs, Arnzen. SHUTOUT: Hansel
(2 saves). RECORDS: Notre Dame 24-2-3, Sacred Heart 23-1-3.